There’s something about the longer days warming the last snows of winter…poring over seed catalogues and getting ready for spring…considering stowing away the heavier sweaters and testing out some cotton shirts again. All of these mundane activities remind me of how, after 13 years, I still miss my mother so much.
This is part one of a letter I’d written to a woman I used to know, who’d told me that when a parent dies, it frees you to become a more complete adult. I’d loathed her with a passion for a long time, but like the intensity of sorrow you feel when someone you love leaves this earth, rage passes too.
Hello, Leslie. I’m at home for a couple of days, trying to get my bearings. I sent off the revised copy to the Lazy Writer some time ago but have not heard anything back. I guess that ‘Lazy’ was well chosen. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.
You know, life is very odd. I have been wallowing in misery for years and more recently, obsessing about the decay of my decades-old marriage. I had just got past the stage where I was boringly woeful and had reached the point of feeling some measure of control (isn’t that what the playwrights call hubris?) or at least a state of acceptance about what has been happening. Until last Friday, that is.
I received the dreaded middle of the night telephone call from my cousin, who said that my mother had collapsed in her bathroom and had been taken to hospital. I was lying in bed in the dark, trying to absorb the news and praying like a mad fiend that, above all, she would not have any pain, when my cousin phoned back to say that Mom had died. It was like… I was frozen – minimal body functions, slow thought processes, general . Then the emergency room nurse called. He described for me what had happened – they thought it was a massive coronary. She was probably gone by the time the paramedics reached her little house (only 3 or 4 minutes elapsed) and although they tried for 45 minutes to resuscitate her, they were unsuccessful. My aunt (her sister) was with her at home and in the hospital, too, and Mom was surrounded by close friends to the end. They say she looked very peaceful and that her body stayed warm for a long time after her heart finally stopped and they pronounced her. She did not struggle to stay. I’d hoped she’d never leave us, but she was always a strong-willed woman.
When my brothers and I arrived on Sunday afternoon (the day after), her place settings for breakfast and lunch were on the dining room table, beside her prayer book. Her address books were sitting there as well, where we could see them right away. The house was neat and there was no sign that this was unexpected, which made us feel abysmally sad but somehow comforted. She was incredibly organized in terms of her will and lists of who was to do what and get what. There was a bit of a kerfuffle because the medical examiner was concerned there may have been some malpractice. Mom had been to her family physician on the Tuesday. He’d found a heart murmur and ordered an emergency EKG but because it was Canada Day and the Stampede was on (hold your horses, folks – everything grinds to a halt for the ‘chucks’!) the test results did not get read. Ok, we said, so what’s the point now anyway – she can’t be helped. Her instructions were specific – no autopsy, no embalming. But the ME was making noises about ‘going in’ to find out what really happened. Uh, no.
Now picture this – three adult Type AAs with the suspicion that there definitely was some miscue because of health care funding cuts and a damned cowboy festival. We tracked down the doctor – at a christening, ironically – who was understandably anxious: we spoke at length with the hospital, the medical examiner’s investigator. We were on the edge of a revolt because they did not want to release her body and the thought of her lying in the cold (her arthritis – I know, not rational) was too awful to contemplate (before they took her to the morgue, one of her friends asked if she could put socks on Mom, but was told no, no one else but the ME could authorize anything to be done with/to the body). And of course, we are grieving but unrelenting and articulate, as only Torontonians bent on doing what Mom wanted could be, and on the edge of outrage that we were being stymied, can be. Once we mentioned the L word (litigation) and indicated that we would sue if her wishes were not complied with, the assembled bureaucratic multitudes had the insight to sign off very quickly (with user fees, of course!!!).
Thank goodness for the diversion, though. Just cleaning up her house and organizing her possessions was so very very difficult – she had little sticky tags on stuff and had left lots of lists. But it was the ordinary things that we all remembered – a cast iron fry pan from the farm, cutlery, my baby clothes from 52 years ago, clothing. And the pictures – dating back to when she was a child in 1926. Her maternal grandparents’ marriage certificate from 1892. She kept every card, drawing and letter we ever sent her. And I mean every one! The only thing we didn’t locate were the letters that she and my father must have written when he was away during WWII, because we’d found out by accident that she’d known him for four years before they’d married, and they were both scribblers extraordinaire. She also left some journals and notebooks recording her daily activities, so I’ll go through them when I am up to it.
I guess the point of this long introduction, is that once again, Mom showed
me that just when you think you have reached a stage of being able to bear it all, when you feel, in your arrogance, that you know what pain really is, and you ask how could God burden you with anything worse, there is, in fact, something worse. I loved my mother with all my heart. She was the focal point of my life. Whatever I and my brothers and our children are, we owe to her.
My father, who is a lovely man, somewhere deep in his chilly poetic soul, left her with four small children in the early 60s, in a small, very Caucasian Ontario farming town, far from her family and friends in Quebec. She didn’t drive and had no skills (farmer’s wife, mother and penny-pincher didn’t count for much), she was black and she was alone without the cachet of being a widow. I remember as a teenager thinking that at least he could have done that for her – died, so that she would have the dignity of being pitied because of something more noble than him having too much emotional sensibility and being too weak to be a proper husband and father, through better and worse. For my Mom, there was never any ‘richer’ back then but there certainly was ‘poorer’, for a long time. She went back to school to become a certified nursing assistant. This woman, whom I remember him calling stupid when his own inadequacy was in full flight, came first in her class and was valedictorian. She won all sorts of awards. Ah, Mom.
But what good did that do her? She worked nights for many years so that she could still be home with us during the day, when we needed her. The toll that took on her was tremendous…. to be continued.